Have you been feeling more lethargic than usual? Sleeping poorly? Gaining weight? Feeling cold? These are just a few of the many manifestations of a poorly functioning thyroid. Let’s take a closer look.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck and an important part of your hormone (or endocrine) system. Some call it the body’s thermostat because it helps regulate your basal body temperature. But the hormones produced by the thyroid have many other important functions in the body, and we wouldn’t be able to live and function without them. The thyroid works closely with the pituitary, a gland associated with the brain, and the adrenals that sit on top of the kidneys.
The pituitary is also referred to as the master gland because it tells other glands in the body, including the thyroid, how much hormones to produce. The adrenals, on the other hand, are important in this connection because they produce hormones regulating our stress response, including cortisol. It’s probably an understatement to describe our endocrine system as a finely tuned orchestra because its regulation is so intricate, sensitive and complex. But let’s come back to the thyroid.
This gland produces hormones that pretty much every cell in the body responds to because they affect cellular metabolism. If the production, storage and conversion of these hormones are out of balance, many of these cellular processes are not well regulated. The majority of people with a thyroid condition have hypofunction, meaning not enough active thyroid hormones are produced. This is called hypothyroidism. Millions of Americans are affected, most of them women. The estimates vary considerably depending on the definition of diagnostic parameters.
Iodine deficiency or something else?
Iodine deficiency-related hypothyroidism is very rare in the United States. Approximately 90% of people with hypothyroidism have autoimmune thyroiditis, often called Hashimoto’s. Here, the body turns on itself and gradually destroys the functional tissue of the thyroid gland. This is not to be taken lightly because a low-functioning thyroid can contribute to infertility, cardiovascular disease, weight gain, depression, insomnia and more. In fact, many women find out that they have Hashimoto’s because they are unable to conceive.
Currently, strategies for laboratory testing are somewhat unsatisfactory, and many women with overt clinical symptoms of thyroid dysfunction are told that their thyroid is not the problem. This is a missed opportunity. By the time physicians are willing to treat hypothyroid patients, the condition has often already progressed much further than necessary. The standard treatment strategy is supplementation with synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine (e.g., Synthroid).
Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t do anything to heal the thyroid or address any of the other related imbalances or dysfunctions that are root causes of, or contribute to, this autoimmune condition.
Looking at the bigger picture
If you feel that you’re not functioning as well as you used to, consider that your thyroid (and possibly your adrenals) are under attack. If your primary care physician, gynecologist or endocrinologist is not willing to cast a wider net, you may want to add a naturopathically oriented practitioner to your health team to explore the following areas of your health: signs of inflammation and related gut dysfunction that can be improved through nutrition and supplementation; stress response of the adrenals and thyroid that can be supported with botanicals and acupuncture; detoxification if chronic infection is suspected (for example, Epstein Barr); and stress management.
Because the manifestations of thyroid hypofunction are varied and very individual, it is important to do the detective work that leads to a better understanding of your own health condition, and to devise a strategy that guides you back to better thyroid health by focusing on holistic approaches, using the best of conventional and complementary medicine. Many patients who’ve done their homework and diligently implemented appropriate lifestyle modifications have seen their health, as well as their thyroid markers, improve without long-term medication.
© 2023 Christiane Siebert